Two football fans, look the game at a subset of the perplexing notion of “don’t make everything political,” We ask why shouldn’t sports be political?
The Kolkata Derby, locally known as the ‘Boro Match‘, is the arena for an intense rivalry between Mohun Bagan FC and East Bengal FC, two most successful I-League teams. The nature of this rivalry and the ill-will between these two sets of fans are well known in Indian football, with chances of violent break-out becoming more common. However, on January 2020, these two sets of fans came together during the Derby to collectively protest against the Citizenship Ammendment Act (CAA). The East Bengal supporters brought a huge banner stating “Rokto diyo kena mati, Kagoj Diye Noi” (this land has been bought by our blood, not by documents).
On the other side of this fierce rivalry which is the largest in India, West Bengal FC fans came together to echo the same sentiment against the fascist government. They unfurled a banner saying “when we were here there were no documents” and another read “saffron brits be warned, we taught India to fight the British. Never forget.”
The argument that sports should be kept sterilized and apolitical is made by many, so that the sport can be enjoyed without “division”. But is this dichotomy possible in the first place? Is it a valid position to have? Politics, what we consider right or wrong, justice, and other ideas always finds a position in every aspect of our life, and thus cannot be ignored. Expressing your political opinion in any form does not dilute its effectiveness or pleasure. The enjoyment we derive from a team or a fanbase does not come from 22 people kicking a ball around, but from the connections and meaning they hold. Why shouldn’t expressing one’s political viewpoint be a part of that?
Firstly, is it even possible to separate politics from sports? Yes. But that would mean ridding sports of every form of political expression- including the national anthem that is played before games or during Olympics and dissociating ourselves from the vague sense of patriotism that we feel when countries win against any nation particularly arch rivalries like India and Pakistan. When you bring forward these points, people respond by saying “arey not this, but the other kind of politics.” That is when it becomes evident that people don’t really want politics to be kept separate, they just want a certain kind of politics to be kept on the sidelines. The kind that involves asking questions, expressing one’s opinion and (god forbid) going against the popular opinion.
These demands are often made by people who are neck deep in privilege. However, for so many people, excelling in sports offers a way for them to break away from the shackles of caste and race based discrimination, to finally make those idenities irrelevant. Sometimes, even that does not entirely happen- Vinod Kambli, despite being an accomplished international level cricketer, had to face caste based abuse when he got injured representing his country. The privilege becomes even more obvious when Colin Kapernick takes a knee to protest against police brutality, and the subsequent debate on his action of expressing dissent is bigger than any debate on police brutality ever was.
The political expression of a city and it’s people is often found in the ideals of the football club tin the city. Liverpool is a prime example of that along with clubs like Boca Juniors, Rayo Vallecano, Livorno, Celtic and others. These clubs come from cities which comes from predominantly left-wing cities.
In the case of Liverpool, it has been a left-wing city for a majority of the last century. A labour stronghold and the Militant Council in Liverpool is famous for saying “it’s better to break the law than break the poor.” In this backdrop, the football team came to show the aspirations of a people ignored by the Central government and the idea of Liverpool’s socialist roots has been mentioned openly by board room members openly, even in these times of right-wing fundamentalism.
Bill Shankly, a club legend in the 20th century and a socialist gave a definition of football which clearly exuded his politic. He said “ I believe the only way to live and be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but its the way I see football and it’s the way I see life.”
As Bertolt Brecht once said “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”
No, sports has never been apolitical- and neither should it be now. In fact, there’s an even stronger need for people like sportspersons who are in a relative position of power to be able to voice their opinions and counter preestablished narratives set by the governments. Politics is as human as human gets, and separating the two simply means taking away from sportspersons something that is integral to them as citizens.
Featured Image Credits: The Indian Express
Prabhanu Kumar Das
Khush Vardhan Dembla